Not long ago, the interconnection of rooftop solar was mostly handled at utilities by distribution system engineers and staff.
Not anymore. By the end of 2013, over 475,000 U.S. solar installations were interconnected. And a million are expected by the end of 2017.
To drive growth, the U.S. Department of Energy wants to bring the installed cost of solar down to $1 per watt. That initiative is expected to drive permitting, inspection and interconnection (PII) soft costs from 2013’s $0.17 per watt to $0.14 per watt by 2020, according to Distributed Solar Interconnection Challenges and Best Practices, a recent report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA).
SEPA’s survey “uncovered utility initiatives to lower the administrative costs of distributed generation interconnection, making the process of connecting to the grid simpler and more transparent for customers.” But it also revealed that “only 17 percent of utilities are able to process applications online.”
“What was five or ten interconnections a month is now 50, 60, 100, or—for some utilities—1,000 per month,” explained SEPA Research Director Mike Taylor. “Utilities are starting to grapple with the fact that this may take dedicated resources.”
“What struck me the most was that 63 percent of utilities are already planning improvements and pro-actively streamlining their processes,” noted survey co-author and SEPA Sr. Researcher Becky Campbell.
Some 86 percent of utilities are only seeing two interconnection applications per day and often not seeing business activity impacts, she said. “But big utilities in states with active solar markets may be seeing 1,000 applications per year, which is 40 per day,” she said. “They are realizing it makes sense from a business perspective to streamline these processes, not just to accommodate the customer, but also to manage their time and costs more effectively.”
Time is money: Interconnection's high cost
Even where smart meters contribute to streamlined processing, the survey found, customers often still require direct one-on-one communications, adding significant time and cost on both sides of the interconnection process.
From application submittal to utility approval now takes an average of four weeks, just as it did in 2008, SEPA found. But utilities with online processes only require an average of two weeks
Of the two-applications-per-day utilities, 41 percent process them in an average of two weeks. Only 15 percent of utilities with larger volumes manage that two week turnaround.
Three-quarters of the interconnection applications are being handled by less than 5 percent of utilities. That is likely why only 15 percent have “optimized processing high numbers of interconnections in short periods of time,” SEPA found.
Others are still trying to figure out how to respond and there is a range of attitudes, Taylor said. “Utilities are like people. You get all kinds.”
Many are only now seeing a post-recession return of sales and revenues, Taylor added. “They were in cost-cutting and outsourcing mode just as solar was growing really fast. They were cutting resources just as they were seeing this new customer service need. Maybe now they’re coming out of that, taking a second look, and seeing how they can save their customers and themselves money and time.”
An online solution
The SEPA survey was performed as part of a U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative award that also funded the development of a new online platform for interconnection application processing by Clean Power Research (CPR)
PowerClerk Interconnection (PC-Interconnect) was developed by CPR out of its widely used PowerClerk Incentives (PC-Incent) online tool. PC-Incent was developed eight years ago for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). It automated the processing of applications for state incentives. It has been used by 22 utilities and agencies to process over 280,000 applications representing more than 6 gigawatts of renewables capacity.
Now, utility incentive funds are being expended, but customers continue to apply for interconnection. For most solar owners, grid interconnection is crucial to the solar value proposition.
Slow interconnection application processing provokes complaints from utility customers and the installers and contractors representing them. The biggest complaint is a lack of application status transparency. Online platforms address this with a real time status check capability.
As a result, NV Energy—which was the SunShot award designated utility partner and the first to test PC-Interconnect—went from taking 2.7 days from application receipt to a sent reservation notice to taking 1.8 days, said Renewable Generation Operations Manager Jeff Healon.
Other common pain points in solar interconnection application processing solved with PC-Interconnect, according to Healon, include:
- Incomplete or inaccurate applications, outdated forms, incorrectly filled out forms, and missing forms
- An increasing volume of phone assistance inquiries
- Waiting for signed forms to be delivered by snail mail
Addressing the pain points
Online platforms like PC-Interconnect and those being developed by utilities in-house reduce snail mail and address pain points promptly. Advantages include:
- Forms are standardized and utility administrators can keep them updated. Automated algorithms minimize incomplete and inaccurate information.
- Inaccuracies can be eliminated by comparing submitted information with smart meter data or information from other databases. Corrections can be made instantly via email.
- Accurate online data makes answering phone inquiries quicker and more precise.
- E-signature technology allows documents to be signed securely in real time.
As utility and state incentive programs draw to a close, public agencies no longer process applications. Detailed information about the incentivized distributed generation important to utilities and the solar market is being lost.
CPR’s PC-Interconnect allows utilities to ask for that PV system information on interconnection applications. In utilities’ databases, that information can be market or operations intelligence or be used in ways that make utilities’ distributions systems safer and customer services better.
“Customer service has been a boon for us,” Healon said. “We can deal with large installers and with growing numbers of customers across the state and do it faster and give them better information.”
The July/August 2014 SEPA survey of 400 utilities asked about annual interconnection application volume, processing times, submission methods, and strengths and challenges in the process. Some 16 percent of utilities, across 25 states and a range of ownership types, responded.
The findings establish that taking interconnection online cuts time and solar soft costs while improving the experience for utility customers, solar customers, and the solar industry. It also establishes that most utilities have a long way to go to get there.